NEW YORK (AP) — A year ago, after the New York Rangers had reached the Eastern Conference final in the 2021-22 season, captain Jacob Trouba pointed out they almost lost in five games in the first round before they could even get a real taste of the NHL playoffs.
Now, after losing in the first round to the rival New Jersey Devils in seven, fellow Rangers defenseman Adam Fox isn’t looking too far ahead. The Metropolitan Division is the reason for his focus.
“The expectation is definitely to win a Stanley Cup, but it’s a process to get there,” Fox said . “Our division, especially, is so competitive you could look ahead and say, ‘We want to win the Stanley Cup,’ and then you’re not making the playoffs.”
Making the playoffs shouldn’t actually be a concern for the Rangers, Devils or the Carolina Hurricanes, who look like the class of the Metro. Beyond them, there is far less certainty.
The New York Islanders bring back almost the same group as they look to return to the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who made the biggest splash of the offseason by acquiring three-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, and the similarly aging Washington Capitals are aiming to get back in after lengthy postseason streaks ended last season.
Columbus should be better following an injury-ravaged year, but the Blue Jackets are also dealing with a coaching change on the eve of training camp when Pascal Vincent replaced Mike Babcock, who was forced to resign. And the long-term rebuild is underway in Philadelphia, where the Flyers could finish in last place barring a stunning turn of events.
The three-time defending division champion Hurricanes, Rangers and Devils mostly have to worry about each other. Carolina, which made the East final before getting swept by Florida with four one-goal defeats including two in overtime, has all the tools to play for the Stanley Cup if its goaltending holds up.
The Hurricanes just have to deal with their Metro rivals first.
“Everyone has a feeling that if you can kind of get out of the division, that we like our chances,” Carolina forward Seth Jarvis said. “Just having that mentality of we just got to get through these two teams — this division — and move on, you get a little more confidence going into the next round.”ON THE RISE
The Devils arrived perhaps a year ahead of schedule in 2022-23, paced by Jack Hughes’ 99-point season and improved goaltending after the acquisition of Vitek Vanecek. They are still young, so they are not getting ahead of themselves about contending for a championship right away.
“I don’t think we can be like, ‘Cup, Cup, Cup,’” Hughes said. “We’ve got to keep moving forward as a group, everyone get better and keep playing well and not put the cart before the horse. We had a really good year last year, but it’s going to be much harder this year. Teams are going to be gunning for us, and we’re now considered a top team.”ON THE DECLINE
After their 16-year run of playoff appearances ended, the Penguins fired president of hockey operations Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall and replaced them with Kyle Dubas. He is following ownership’s mandate to contend as long as possible with the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang still around.
Even after trading for Karlsson and Cup-winning Vegas forward Reilly Smith, there are questions about Pittsburgh’s ability to defend and keep the puck out of its own net. Dubas is banking on Tristan Jarry after re-signing the goaltender to a five-year contract worth just under $27 million.
After its eight-year playoff streak ended, Washington made fewer changes, continuing to roll with the core led of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson. They’re the key to contending for a spot.
“We need our core guys to compete with the best guys in the league,” GM Brian MacLellan said. “That’s as far as we’ll go here. We’re going to inject some young guys. They’ll play, and their role will be determined by the coaching staff. I think the combination of all that, we should still be competitive.”ON THE HOT SEAT
Swinging and missing on hiring Babcock could spell trouble for Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and maybe even his boss, president of hockey operations John Davidson. Owners said there would be no more changes “at this time” following the move to promote Vincent to the head coaching role, citing the desire to avoid further distractions that would be detrimental to preparations for the season.
If Columbus doesn’t make the playoffs, there’s a good chance of a full front office house cleaning.
Predicted order of finish: Carolina, New York Rangers, New Jersey, New York Islanders, Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Philadelphia.